It’s one depressingly typical minute of the 6.2 million uploaded to YouTube every day: In a Montreal park, nothing much is happening. The camera pans around a clear blue sky, tracing the arc of a golden eagle as it twists and turns through the air. The bird pulls a generous sweep around a large tree, 30 feet or more, shorn of its branches by the bitter frost that hits the Quebec city this time of year. And then things turn from dull nature documentary into snuff film.
The eagle doesn’t continue its elegant acrobatics. Instead, it suddenly picks up pace. The sweep becomes a swoop, and it’s dropping altitude. Eleven seconds into the video, a small boy in a warm insulated jacket comes into frame. He’s sitting faced away, staring into space.
Eleven seconds into the video, you realize what’s going to happen. Eleven seconds into the video, the eagle is 10 feet behind the little boy, and you’re damned if the way the bird’s wings are drawn up doesn’t remind you an awful lot of the way Dracula wraps himself in his cloak before biting. It’s horror-movie stuff.
A second later, the eagle’s talons have latched on and the boy’s taken up off the ground; he’s dead weight. A guy in a black-and-white striped sweater rooting around in a bag nearby runs over as the boy takes flight. He’s in mid-air, and when the talons release, he’s flying for a split second before hitting the ground.
We hear an appropriately startled “Oh, shit!” and the cameraman sprints over, the grass speeding past as the lens points down. The little boy is crying. He’s wearing a bright red hat with big googly eyes, and his face is that emotionless expression small humans get when they just don’t have an appropriate response to what’s gone on. The boy is alright, and the horror you felt gives way to relief. Thirty-five seconds in, the video replays the moment in slow motion because that’s what happens at the end of every dunk on SportsCenter. The screen fades to black.
And then you copy the video URL, go to your Facebook account, and paste it in the status box, add a “what the fuck!” or something equally trite, and share.
You’ve just done precisely what Professor Robin Tremblay wanted you to do.
Tremblay is a lecturer at Centre NAD, a technology university in Montreal, where he’s been teaching a video-effects class since 1992. In October, he challenged his students — as he did the previous two semesters — to make a viral hoax video. If it got more than 100,000 views, then congratulations, you got an A.
“The students have to shoot live-action, integrate 3-D effects, and make it so believable that it can look real,” he explains in a thick French-Canadian accent. That’s the core component of the VFX course and has been for years. “But I was always trying to think of new ways to teach it. New ideas. I think, ‘Oh, maybe I should try a prank film.’”
Though the primary aim of Tremblay’s class was to teach his students how best to use software to create 3-D visual effects, the assignment became an object lesson in what we find interesting, why we find it interesting, and how we disseminate things we find interesting. What do we believe, and why? And unlike 2009’s Balloon Boy debacle, which smacked of opportunism and exploitation, this was the rare public hoax that remains victimless and good-natured and unmotivated by malice or greed — one that could actually be a teachable moment, not just for the perpetrators, but for all of us who participated by clicking, or by telling others to. And these moments are worth examining closely because they’re the ones in which we’re all watching, and wondering, together, in real time, if only for a short time.
Four of Tremblay’s most industrious students, Normand Archambault, Félix Marquis-Poulin, Loïc Mireault, and Antoine Seigle, created a video called “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” — 17 million views within a day, just shy of 42 million views in total, 14 million minutes in viewing time in the U.S. alone, embedded on major news websites worldwide, broadcast on morning talk shows, and linked from countless message boards — which proved this in historically impressive style.
“I still don’t understand how it went that big,” says Marquis-Poulin, 23. “I go from step one to the final result. I see all the work we did. I can’t comprehend somebody on their phone, watching the video, saying, ‘Look at this! An eagle catches a baby! That’s awesome.’ I can’t imagine how many people had this moment. It’s weird.”
They got an A.
1. Thunderbirds Are Go
Tremblay wants his students to be at least as adept as the major professional movie studios they will hopefully end up working for. He also knows that the way visual effects are being deployed is changing — they’re no longer used only to portray the incredible; often they’re used in place of the mundane. If a director doesn’t want to deal with 4,000 extras cheering in a football stadium, he’ll populate the stands with computer-generated fans waving banners. Tremblay also knows how much video content we watch and share (4 billion hours a month on YouTube alone), and that if you can separate yourself from the dross, there is a potentially huge audience out there.
Tremblay’s 25 students were separated into teams of two to five, and let loose. “Babies and animal videos were very much popular,” explains Mireault, 21. “We started brainstorming how we could mix those two ideas.”
“We didn’t have the idea right away,” explains Archambault, 22, who seems the natural leader of the group, comfortable explaining the process behind the creation of the video and the least fazed of the four by the attention the runaway success of the video eventually garnered. In November, he says, the four began batting around potential concepts for the project, including exploding pigeons and a plane landing on a busy Montreal street.
“But we decided an eagle would be more…” — there’s a slight pause to find the right word — “subtle than a plane,” adds Marquis-Poulin. Montrealers would be more likely to question why they didn’t hear the sound of a 747 touching down on Saint Catherine Street; they could feasibly miss a bird snatching a child in a park. And while the students’ reasoning may have ultimately boiled down to a simple tenet that serves to remind how much W.C. Fields would have loathed the internet, there is much historical precedent to suggest that the concept of a bird attack had the potential to be shared widely.
Enough people saw Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds 50 years ago for it to earn more than $11 million at the box office — nearly four times its $3.3 million budget. French avant-garde filmmaker François Truffaut was “convinced that cinema was invented so that such a film could be made.” Certainly it got people’s attention, and it hardened the primal premise in our minds that birds are considered potential human predators.
Indeed a whole academic field is devoted to such events. Some cryptozoologists spend their life’s work trying to piece together historical references to (often giant) birds snatching babies and adults from their comfortable lives and flying them away. One of the most respected in this field is Mark A. Hall, 66, who worked for the USDA after gathering intelligence in West Berlin during the Cold War. He isn’t coming up with these theories off the top of his head: There are firsthand historical written accounts testifying that bird attacks are real.
One such report was contained in the May 17, 1888, edition of The Equity newspaper out of Bryson, Quebec, a three-hour drive from Montreal. Seven-year old Georgie Richards of Brier Hill, New York, repelled “a very large bald eagle” with “as large a club as he could wield.” The paper said it was “the first instance in which one of these voracious birds has attempted to carry off a child in St. Lawrence County.”
“Looking back over the century and a half of reports,” Hall wrote in his 2004 book Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds, “it would seem encounters in which a person is harmed occur every 30 to 40 years. At that pace, it’s about time for another incident of such a dangerous and dramatic nature.”
The students figured that if they could present footage that backed up
thousands of years of apocryphal written evidence, that video could be huge. Their research uncovered a series of reported bird attacks throughout history — mostly based in northern Europe, says Archambault — and knew they could tap into that fear for their viral video.
“We had to do two kinds of research: one about the anatomy and the feathers, and the other was how the eagle flies,” Marquis-Poulin explains. “How he moves, how he attacks his prey.”
The video-effects course aims to accurately mimic the process of producing a real movie, says Professor Tremblay. That meant the students had to scout out locations, storyboard the action, and find some leading players.
The students had their arch villain, but now they needed their ingenue to be swept away. Seigle, the oldest of the group at 24, seemed the most likely to know someone who had a child willing to take part. Eventually, a friend’s 18-month old son, Jacob, was cast. “It was the only available baby we had access to,” Seigle admits, laughing.
The choice of location seemed obvious to the group: It had to be Mount Royal Park. The 500-acre expanse of greenery is pretty much the only place in the city you might see a rare golden eagle and a happy, innocent child in the same space. It had some name recognition, and the right kind of surroundings to correctly frame and track the shot so that the 3-D smoothly integrated with the real-life footage.
A group of eight, including their teacher, young Jacob, and Jacob’s parents, gathered near the 155-year-old stone-built Smith House inside the park and shot their footage on Nov. 18. On arrival, the group made a crucial executive decision: Initially, the bird was going to fly away with the child. “We decided on a happy ending,” says Mireault.
The crew spent two hours filming four or five takes in the park. In one, explains Archambault, “the baby actually cried for real. We really liked that, so we put it in.”
Over the next month, they ran their footage through three different programs: Autodesk Softimage (a 3-D-modeling app where they created the eagle and the computer-generated baby), Autodesk Maya (a program used to texture the eagle’s feathers), and NUKE, a post-production program that digitally composited the different source material and gave the studio-quality footage a believable rough quality.
All told, from being given the assignment on Oct. 29 to turning it in on Dec. 18, the four estimate they worked some 400 hours on the project. “We did a couple of all-nighters,” adds Mireault, during which the group would act as a tag team: One person would take a much-needed nap while the others worked. When refreshed, they’d swap roles.
With weary eyes, the 25 or so students in the course gathered in the Blinn/Phong screening room on campus at 4:00 p.m. EST on Dec. 18. People sat on the floor and propped themselves up against the walls: This was the conclusion of their class, and everyone wanted to see what everyone else had produced. One team made an infomercial for an alarm clock (402 views to date), another for an iPhone app that punches people in the face (2,634 views). “We still had our doubts, right until the end,” says Seigle. But the video was well-received.
“Everyone applauded, everyone laughed at the little slow motion at the end,” says Archambault. “There are more things to improve, but we had to hand it in.” He pauses. “We thought it looked pretty good.”
As soon as the class screening was over, all four quickly made their way to a computer. Seigle pushed the big red upload button on YouTube at around 7:00 p.m., surrounded by his three classmates. An innocuous username — MrNuclearCat — was chosen for the account. (The name was a breadcrumb for those on the trail of unveiling it as a hoax; the students had created a video earlier in the semester called “Nuclear Cats,” which they had submitted to the Montreal International Game Summit.) Within 30 minutes, the first post on Reddit appeared. Within an hour, the first user tweeted out the video. Major sites were picking up on the story by midnight.
The four students, meanwhile, were with their classmates in Le Pourvoyeur, a red brick building on Rue Jean Talon Est, a 15-minute walk from the Centre NAD campus. It’s the students’ regular haunt, bustling, even on a Tuesday night —upwards of 60 students and their teachers, powered by adrenaline, relief, and 5.0% ABV beer.
Tremblay was proud of his students’ work, and told them so. “It was kind of a big endeavor to animate a bird and everything,” says Marquis-Poulin. “He was very proud of us for succeeding on something he himself was calling very difficult.”
The teachers had taken the students out to decompress, but easier said than done: They were all on their phones. “We checked how it was going, and it was around 1,000 views. We were already very happy with that,” says Archambault.
“The first comments on the video were very positive. Everybody was fooled, and that was kind of a good sign,” adds Marquis-Poulin, who had managed to sneak in a power nap before presenting to the class at 4:00 p.m. “We were expecting to have at least 10,000 views in the morning. We weren’t expecting 1.2 million.”
Not everyone was fooled, though.
Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Except that he didn’t, because C.H. Spurgeon said it first — in 1859 — and said it a little differently: “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” Even that is an adaptation of a Jonathan Swift quote first penned 150 years earlier. The major aphorism people use to warn about the spread of falsehoods is itself based on a lie so widely spread that it has turned into one of those common cultural constants everyone knows and parrots back to each other.
“Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” didn’t just pull on a pair of jackboots; it slipped itself into Nike running shoes, did some stretches, and set off at a sprint. The race to debunk the video was on.
Cyatek, real name Tiago Duarte, lives in Barcarena, Portugal, less than 10 miles west of Lisbon. Like a lot of teenage boys, when not on YouTube he spends a lot of time playing hyperrealistic video games like Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and he’s a whiz at Photoshop. And to him, watching the video 20 minutes after it was uploaded, the whole thing just didn’t sit right.
“It looked so fake to me,” he explains. “The main thing that gave it away was the baby falling down.” When the eagle snatches the child in its talons, it drags along the ground. As the bird gains a little altitude, the child slips. “It really looked like a 3-D model to me,” the kind of models that populate Call of Duty, says Duarte. This was a worry of the students too: “Making a realistic human in 3-D is very hard. When it looks fake, it’s very unconvincing,” explains Archambault.
But others were less skeptical than Duarte. “Every single person was believing it, and the top comment at the time was something like, ‘If you want to say this is fake, you better provide some proof.’ So I did.”
Duarte downloaded the video from YouTube and opened his copy of Sony Vegas Pro 11, a video editing package. He ran the file through some manual stabilization filters and corrected the color to make his proof more vivid. A frame-by-frame analysis found that at one stage of the video, the shadow of the bird disappears, and when the little boy slips from the eagle’s talons, he in fact still travels upward for a fraction of a second. All in all, it took the 17-year-old less than five hours to debunk a month-and-a-half’s worth of work.
Duarte used his video editing skills to put together a short video. “If I just commented [on the original YouTube video], people would just call me names,” he says, so he uploaded his version to YouTube at 5:20 a.m. Western European Time (12:20 a.m. EST), a couple of hours before the four students headed home from the bar.
At that point everything “happened so fast,” he says. Duarte’s first move was to go to the original video and link to his response. People still didn’t believe him; two users ganged up in a chain of comments, one asking, “How is this proof?” The other said it was “proof Cyatek is retarted [sic].”
Duarte didn’t mind: That’s the internet, after all, and people “really believed it was legit.” Rather than deal with YouTube commenters, he thought he’d post the rejoinder to the Centre NAD video to Reddit, where he’d first seen the original.
He was too late. He tried to upload his clip, “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid — Fake,” but the site threw up an error page — someone had already put his clip up. It had been only five minutes, max. Now there were two videos in circulation, one countering the other. Both were racking up views, comments, and coverage at a prodigious rate, and neither creator had control over their spread.
3. Moon Unicorns and Space Monkeys
The person who oversees YouTube’s vision of what will become viral is Kevin Allocca. He’s the company’s trends manager, a buzzy title that essentially means he is ahead of the curve when it comes to babies on Roombas and cute dogs burping the alphabet. Allocca has identified three pillars of virality: tastemakers (those who decide what is cool, and spread it), communities (such as Reddit), and unexpectedness (which a bird-brained kidnapping has in droves).
“If there’s anything we like more than watching outrageous footage of the impossible, it’s discussing and reacting to outrageous footage of the impossible,” he says. The video lingered, even after its debunking, because it gave people, he continues, “a topic for us to engage on and debate with each other about. We know that videos depicting the seemingly implausible — especially in nature — can become very popular. Add in the fact that there’s just a lot to react to and that tons of blogs and news sites were embedding the video, and you’ve got a recipe for viral success.”
Ryan Cordell, a lecturer at Northeastern University specializing in 19th-century periodical literature, analyzes how newspapers and other mass media of the time disseminated news, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the criteria for what makes a story spread haven’t changed much. “It needs to be easily shared; have some level of cuteness — or,” he explains, “in this case be something horrifying; and have some kind of challenge, or puzzle, or mystery.” “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” has all three.
One of the most outlandish hoaxes in history was gently ushered into the world via the pages of the New York Sun in August 1835. A supposed friend of famous astrologer Sir John Herschel wrote in the paper that he had been pointing his telescope (one made “of an entirely new principle”) at the surface of the moon one night and saw — amongst other things — unicorns, goats, and men with wings building giant temples to their gods. The story is, of course, baloney, but no more so, certainly in 1835, than the notion a bird could swoop down and snatch a child from a Montreal park.
Eventually the hoax was uncovered — but not before it got the Sun an awful lot of new readers handing over their one cent each day to see what new miracles would happen. This was one of the first big hoaxes that fooled people in great numbers. After it, says Cordell, “lots of others came along and tried to mimic it, but lots failed. People had become attuned to be skeptical of similar things.” That skepticism has continued ever since.
For some hoax creators, the goal is monetary gain and notoriety. Smart advertising companies have co-opted the popularity of the viral video to get their clients’ products in front of millions of eyeballs. Some work, some don’t. Some wear their branding on their sleeve, while others (such as this video of a Fiat attempting a U-turn in Naples, Italy) don’t seem that blatant. Yet a lot of the people behind these hoaxes aren’t necessarily trying to probe a boundary: They’re simply responding to a common human impulse to fuck with our fellow man. And they find a receptive audience, because despite our pessimism, we’re drawn to the extraordinary.
“Then, as now, we like to share things that resonate with our cultural ideas or values,” Cordell says. “That gives us this sense that we are participating in and creating a community.” And from time immemorial, one of our main cultural experiences is that we will do anything we can to make sure our young come to no harm.
Whereas previous bird snatchings in a pre-internet age still linger with uncertainty as to whether they’re true or not, this one was categorically debunked — and quickly. “We’re more and more on the lookout for a con,” posits Cordell. One need only look at the skepticism in the initial online response to last week’s footage of the Russian meteor shower; and when Iran’s state news agency released photographs of the monkey it sent into space earlier this month, an online brouhaha broke out over its legitimacy. People believed it was fake based on, of all things, a mole on the animal’s forehead. (The news agency wasn’t trying to fool anyone: It simply used an archive photo of another space-bound monkey to illustrate the story.) If something seems remotely out of the realm of possibility — and we’re presented with a lot of things that seem questionable on the internet — then our first response nowadays is to be circumspect.
Some believe what they see. Some don’t. In a way, it doesn’t matter.
4. The Morning After
More than 1 million people had seen the original video by the morning of Dec. 19. Everyone, from Professor Tremblay to the students, couldn’t quite believe it. Being that kind of success was a crapshoot, believes Tremblay. “There’s a lot of things we can’t control. You can do the best thing,” have the best and slickest 3-D effects, “but you need the spark,” he says, when 72 hours worth of video are uploaded to YouTube each minute. “There’s an undefinable quality to what makes a hoax a success. There’s an X factor, which is kind of elusive.”
Claude Arsenault, Centre NAD’s public relations director, began getting press calls early on the morning of Dec. 19. “What happened was,” says Arsenault, “we confirmed very quickly it was a hoax. It was not generally accepted that it was a hoax. There was a 12-hour window where no one claimed it. We claimed it very fast.”
“Well, that’s a lie,” Tiago Duarte replies when this is quoted to him. He links me to a screenshot of his YouTube analytics screen for the video, and seems to have a point; around three quarters of a million people had seen “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid — Fake” by Dec. 19, around the time Centre NAD was releasing its admission — and getting its star pupils ready to meet the swarming press.
“We had to call the students to wake them up because camera crews were showing up” at the college, Arsenault explains.
There was one problem: Marquis-Poulin’s cell phone was dead. Archambault was dispatched to bang on his front door. “I knew it was kind of a special situation then,” Marquis-Poulin sheepishly explains.
All present and correct and groggy, the four students underwent a crash course in media training — the main tenet of which was breathe and think before you answer a question, but also to, for some reason, drink a lot of water and eat a lot of fruit — before being coaxed and cajoled from one TV studio to another.
“From noon until 9:00 p.m. they barely had time to eat,” says Arsenault of the full press blitz. “It was interview after interview after interview.” The students were caught off guard by the response, and found it challenging traversing the world’s media in English and their native French. Not one of them was an eager interview subject. “They really just wanted to get back to their projects,” Arsenault explains.
Amid the chaos of television, print, and radio interviews, the students still had term papers to hand in. (They were eventually given an extension for their essays into the holidays.) By the second day — and following a good night’s sleep — the group were alternating interviews in groups of two and four with a little downtime to tend to their essays and play Ping-Pong in the student lounge downstairs from the press office.
The students were happy with one aspect of their fame, though. It allowed their family members to better understand what their degree involved beyond playing about on computers. “My family was treating me a little bit like a star,” says Marquis-Poulin. “For them to be proud was the best feeling.”
As people panicked and freaked out, the school had to admit the video was a hoax, and the second phase of the viral half-life of a YouTube video kicked into action. Now that people knew it was smoke and mirrors, they wanted to learn more about how it was done.
One fear — that potentially killer birds were on the loose — was replaced with another: If a bunch of students can make something so convincing, what’s to say that CCTV footage, or news footage, couldn’t be forged? That week before Christmas saw the students everywhere, on every channel, in every language.
Two months on and inevitably the number of views has slowed on the video. The graph’s leveled out; in truth, it’d been inching toward a plateau 24 hours after it was first uploaded. Such is the supersonic speed of the internet, chewing trends up and spitting them out, before moving down the road and onto the next phenomenon. “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” did better than most, though. “There aren’t a ton of videos so far that have been able to pick up over 15 million views in a single day,” says Allocca. Centre NAD and Tremblay took some flack from veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitators. Their video — though meant in jest — gave a species struggling to survive around the world bad press. (It also freaked out a few kids.) Though largely, people were simply impressed by the quality of the fake.
Because the Centre NAD students made their video with educationally licensed versions of Autodesk Softimage, Autodesk Maya, and NUKE, they weren’t entitled to make money from the video — and with nearly 42 million views, a potentially significant amount of revenue was about to go unclaimed. However, the school could take the money, which will be used to help fund a scholarship for students who ordinarily might not be able to afford Centre NAD’s tuition.
The four students are happy with the impact their work will have on future students at the school. For now they’re being coy about what’ll happen when they graduate, though some already have work experience with professional studios. Archambault has won an individual VFX competition and will visit Pixar’s studios in Emeryville, California this summer.
Tiago Duarte won’t be making quite as much as Centre NAD from his video, though he was as quick off the mark. His debunking of the hoax, despite passing in front of more than 4 million pairs of eyeballs, has earned $94.77 as of Feb. 2. YouTube keeps $8.78 of that, and the remaining amount is split 40/60 between Duarte and a network called Maker Studios he joined months before coming across “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid.” For a 17-year-old, that’s not an inconsiderate amount of money — it’ll keep him in games for a month or so — but it’s not the amount it could’ve been. “Honestly, I don’t really care much,” he says. “I didn’t want to have the video monetized in the first place…so I’ll get whatever I get and I’m OK with it.”
I mention to him that the profit from the original video will go toward scholarships.
“That’s really awesome!” he responds. “Can’t wait to see what they produce this year.”
5. “We’re Under Scrutiny”
A good portion of the nearly 42 million people (as many people as the entire population of Argentina) who have watched “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” will be waiting for this year’s hoaxes too. The next crop of students are already planning their hoax videos. Archambault, Marquis-Poulin, Mireault, and Seigle are still at the school, jokingly goading their peers to top them. They hope their success motivates those who come next, and by all accounts they’re already impressing. Robin Tremblay knows people are now on the lookout, and he also knows how difficult it will be to follow up on this year’s success.
Tremblay began working on Hollywood movies in 1995 with work for the schlocky Witchboard III: The Possession and Screamers. Since then he’s contributed to 30 or so films since as a matte painter and digital effects artist. (The movies have stepped up in quality: Tremblay has since worked on 300 and Brokeback Mountain.) In his years in the business, he’s seen a change in the way special effects are produced, and a way in which his work is distributed and received.
In the two months since “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid,” the school has fielded calls from people who have seen natural disasters and wondered whether they had something to do with it. They even took queries over the Russian meteorites, Arsenault says.
That people are linking such events to Centre NAD shows both how impressive 3-D computer-generated animation has become — even outside of professional Hollywood studios — and how suspicious people have grown. The balance of power has shifted: Hearsay was once the preserve of the people, while the media were detached and coolheaded. “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” inverted those roles. “The press is now less skeptical than many of the citizens they purport to serve,” believes Clay Shirky, one of the foremost thinkers on the social impact of the internet.
Truthers, conspiracy theorists, and cranks are no longer out on a limb in distrusting everything they see. Given that undergraduates have the computing power and the tools to distort reality, there’s no telling what more power and higher investment can do. Tricks that were once Stalinist methods of rewriting history are now within the reach of anyone with a copy of Photoshop.
Tremblay, forever the wide-eyed youngster watching Hollywood’s finest effects — one of his first works as a child auteur was to make his brother, playing a wizard, appear and disappear in a short film called The Evil Witchcraft — prefers to look at the positive reasoning behind why the video spread so quickly. “We crave the unexpected, the crazy, the impossible,” he says. “Like the poster in Mulder’s office in The X-Files, ‘We Want To Believe.’”
That’s going to be harder and harder to do. “A lot of people are now familiar with VFX techniques,” says Tremblay. “They know what to look for to detect computer imagery. People are now used to seeing great VFX and they know it is not real. We’re under scrutiny.”
But Centre NAD will continue to try to push the boundaries of computer-generated effects while fooling the general populace. It’ll be difficult, Tremblay points out, but don’t worry.
“I have a few more tricks up my sleeve.”